Why f/1.4 Doesn’t Mean Professional Anymore

Why f/1.4 Doesn’t Mean Professional Anymore

For the last couple of decades, a prime lens wasn’t professional grade if it didn’t have a maximum aperture of f/1.4. Times have changed, however, and now, you have to look past the aperture to really understand where a lens is positioned. Want to know what drove this change?

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: in this article, just about every factor that I mention also applies to zoom lenses. I wanted to examine prime lenses because they have some of the best one-to-one correlations across product lines and within any manufacturer’s individual product stack. Also, these are general trends that are shaping the market, but not absolute rules, so there may be some exceptions.

Put broadly, a modern f/1.8 prime lens is perfectly suitable for professional use, compared to a f/1.4 or f/1.2 prime. The slightly shallower depth of field and slightly faster potential shutter speed are outweighed by the drastic increase in price and potential degradation in image quality. While manufacturers are still building these lenses, they’ve been increasingly relegated to “halo” products, as compared to the workhorses they were just a few years ago.

ISO 6,400

This first trend has been shaping the market for arguably the longest time, going back to the film era: the sensitivity of the capture medium to light. With common film stocks, you’d have a rough equivalent of ISO 100, with some available at speeds of up to around ISO 1,000 (and few at 3,200). This meant a fast lens was a necessity, as even a slight dip in available light could quickly see you reaching unusably slow shutter speeds. As faster films became available, suddenly, an f/2.8 lens wasn’t such an albatross around the neck of the user.

Between VR and clean high ISOs, shooting handheld under low light is much less of a challenge than in the past.

Fast-forward a few years, and these days, even consumer bodies are capable of a perfectly usable ISO 3,200 or 6,400, with VR or IS further expanding the usable shutter speed range. All of a sudden, having a very fast lens is even less of a priority for many uses. While a few niches, including astrophotography, sports, and some events still use all the speed available, for others, just bumping the ISO will suffice.

50+ Megapixels

With sensors achieving ever-higher megapixel counts, the optical issues inherent to making a very fast lens are making those lenses more expensive and less desirable. This trend is more recent, with camera manufacturers only recently taking it into consideration in their lens lineups. 

As a little background to this, consider that in just a few years, we’ve jumped from 12 megapixels to 24 megapixels, then 36 megapixels, and now, 50 megapixels. Manufacturers quickly realized that these jumps in resolving power showed the weaknesses in their existing lenses, which had been designed to a standard that was fading quickly. As an easy example, Nikon’s D800 came with a technical guide which included a list of recommended lenses that “offer excellent resolution” for the body. This was a small subsection of the entire F-mount lineup. While the list features a number of f/1.4 lenses, as someone who has used those exact combos, I can say they were being optimistic.

Lens manufacturing is a complicated process, and lens design requires making tradeoffs. What this ends up looking like is an acceptable amount of decentering and reductions in resolution to make the lens affordable. To the end-user, this means sample variation: some copies of an f/1.4 lens can look great, while others can have issues. Further compounding this are the problems inherent to the more complicated AF mechanisms of DSLRs, where any misalignment can equal missed focus at f/1.4.

Even with a f/1.4 lens, you might end up stopping down to f/1.8 or slower anyway, as the optical aberrations are especially evident in some situations.

For example, consider these two lenses: the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.8. Both are good lenses, but only one is a good value. The f/1.4 costs over three times as much as the f/1.8, while falling flat in many aspects when reviewed. Sure, it gets to f/1.4, but at what price? I saw this first hand, leading me to sell my f/1.4 version and “downgrade,” only to end up with sharper photos from the cheaper lens. For the price of one "fast" lens, you can buy an entire kit or an expensive trip to use the gear.

The Real World

The camera industry is facing challenges. Falling sales figures across the board mean that every company has to cut costs (even before the current pandemic-fueled predicament). Some of the first things up on the cutting board are the somewhat bloated product lines. For instance, Canon currently has 148 different DSLR kits available at B&H. Even considering some of these are minor variations of accessories, that still equals 17 different bodies. Is there really a meaningful difference to a consumer between the T6, T6i, and T6s?

A thinner, more rationalized product lineup will be necessary for any manufacturer that wants to be successful. Lenses offer a great example of this as well, since Canon and Nikon’s mirrorless roadmaps already reflect this thinking. Nikon is creating f/1.8 primes that beat both their F-mount equivalents and the upmarket f/1.4 F-mount versions, letting them sell one lens to their entire user base. The lenses come with all the pro-spec features, like a rear dust gasket and exceptional image quality, but lands at a price point within reach of most consumers.

Canon’s mirrorless strategy is quite different, but the portion relevant to this article could be summed up as “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing”. Freed from some of the constraints of DSLR autofocus systems, they’ve launched the newest versions of their f/1.2 primes. These are quite the accomplishment but come with a price tag to match, including a 50mm at over $2,000 and 85mm at around $3,000. Whether this makes sense in a mount without a pro-grade body, in an industry experiencing falling revenue, remains to be seen.

Whether your next lens is a sharper-than-ever f/1.8 or a wallet-withering f/0.95, the industry has shifted away from the anchor point of f/1.4. The top end of the market has pushed well beyond that point, while the majority has clustered around the “fast enough” f/1.8. I’d argue 99% of users are best served by some of the fantastic f/1.8 primes currently available and to remember that just because it doesn’t hit f/1.4 doesn’t mean it isn’t capable.

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Previous comments
Alex Kroke's picture

good point! I would have both and put them to use when what i want to accomplish requires that particular lens

Karim Hosein's picture

Give me a perfect lens anyday. Some call it “character,” I call it “aberrations.”

I spent years trying to avoid and mitigate chromatic aberration, and now video games & 3D renderers are adding it —and way to much of it— to create “realism,” and “character.”

Yeah, I will take the perfect lens.

Robert Teague's picture

Matt Irwin has a great video on this subject which is worth watching. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbbzudDA6fk

Momchil Yordanov's picture

When started using the new Nikon lenses, the S line of f/1.8s, I realized these are better than anything I used before, including a couple of the F-mount f/1.4 primes. But I believe the trend started earlier. The f/1.8G lineup in Nikon world is what opened the eyes of most users. These were pretty good already, at fraction of the price and user-friendly because of the smaller size.

Nathan Wong's picture

As I mentioned in a reply (see above) the S-line is perfect, but it might not have "character." Flaws that were left on purpose by the lens creator to give it a certain look. The S-line is there to capture the image flawlessly and with perfection. The older f/1.4G lenses were designed with certain aberrations and flaws left in. The 58mm, 35mm, and 85mm come to mind. Those lenses are far, far from perfect, especially in the sharpness category, yet people sought them out because of the way they rendered the image.

David Justice's picture

From what I've seen. People "show off" about f/1.4 when they're a portrait photographer looking for the bokeh. It's never been about low light performance and more about how they can make the chinese food neon sign in the background and the "fairy lights" in the foreground out of focus while just the eyes were sharp.

Karim Hosein's picture

Eyes? You mean, “eye.” 😁😄😉😃😂

Catherine Bowlene's picture

The gear doesn't make you a professional, isn't that the key point?

Alex Coleman's picture

Perhaps. If I had to put it into a sentence, it'd be "Lens design priorities have changed with high resolution, digital bodies, which has shifted the emphasis away from aperture value as a quality gauge". Less catchy, but I don't think this is really a gear = pro argument.

Ryan Stone's picture

Article smells of FUD from a Nikon user. Launching a high end 47MP mirrorless camera with generic-rendering f/1.8 lenses with price tags of 1.4 lenses was a huge misstep. A $13,000 CAD manual focus lens was a huge misstep as well.

Canon got it right. Otus level lenses that weren’t possible on the older mounts, with autofocus, for half the price of an Otus.

Also, the R is a pro camera. It’s a mirrorless 5D4 in ever way except a 2nd card slot.

Also, R5 is on the way.

Jim Cutler's picture

Hmmmm...how exactly are the Nikon Z 1.8's 20mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm "generic-rendering"? As a Z shooter I probably missed this and I need to know if I have to switch now. Never mind. I'm good.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Author could have gone with article title like "Are f1.4 lenses still a necessity?" or "Do you need to invest in f1.4 lenses?" Instead we have another misinterpretation of word "professional".

sicha ned's picture

"For the last couple of decades, a prime lens wasn’t professional grade if it didn’t have a maximum aperture of f/1.4"

i am pretty sure leica will disagree

J. W.'s picture

When trying to shoot in ambient while in extremely low light, I like to maintain the shutter at 1/160 to prevent motion blur of people moving at a normal pace. There is a big difference between ISO 6400 and 10000, shooting 1/100 substantially increases the chance of motion blur in everything but posed shots. So 1.4 and 1.2 lenses still have their place, as well a lighter 1.8/2,0 lenses when I know in advance that I will not need the big light gatherers.

Ed C's picture

Talent only differentiates talent. There are an awful lot of "pros" who make money with photography but are not very good technically or artistically.

Timothy Roper's picture

But does the "P" on that dial thing on top of the camera still mean professional?

Scott Murphy's picture

I have both 50mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 AIS Nikkors. Both are very sharp in the center but the f/1.8 is sharper in the corners. A 2/3 stop difference in maximum aperture is barely even noticeable in the viewfinder.

I also have an 85mm f/1.4 AIS Nikkor and had the 85mm f/2 AIS Nikkor and to be honest, the f/1.4 out performs it. The price difference, however is pretty substantial though.

Brad Trent's picture